NASA’s unassuming civil servant Cassini has a thing or two to prove. Before graciously accepting an inevitable and long overdue retirement -Cassini obligingly agreed to traipse through daunting plumes of ice and water vapor, allowing mankind unprecedented insight into ice plumes erupting from the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
Eighteen years after launch, seven years en-route to Saturn, eleven years exploring Saturn and her moons, two mission extensions beyond wildest expectations – Cassini has nothing to lose. On October 28 this sentiment meant taking a dive at 31,000 kph to within 45 Km of Enceladus at the south pole, directly into erupting “plumes” of icy vapor.
Below – seven facts about Cassini/Enceladus from earthsky (linked above)
1. Early in its mission, Cassini discovered Enceladus has remarkable geologic activity, including a towering plume of ice, water vapor and organic molecules spraying from its south polar region. Cassini later determined the moon has a global ocean and likely hydrothermal activity, meaning it could have the ingredients needed to support simple life.
2. The flyby will be Cassini’s deepest-ever dive through the Enceladus plume, which is thought to come from the ocean below. The spacecraft has flown closer to the surface of Enceladus before, but never this low directly through the active plume.
3. The flyby is not intended to detect life, but it will provide powerful new insights about how habitable the ocean environment is within Enceladus.
4. Cassini scientists are hopeful the flyby will provide insights about how much hydrothermal activity – that is, chemistry involving rock and hot water – is occurring within Enceladus. This activity could have important implications for the potential habitability of the ocean for simple forms of life. The critical measurement for these questions is the detection of molecular hydrogen by the spacecraft.
5. Scientists also expect to better understand the chemistry of the plume as a result of the flyby. The low altitude of the encounter is, in part, intended to afford Cassini greater sensitivity to heavier, more massive molecules, including organics, than the spacecraft has observed during previous, higher-altitude passes through the plume.
6. The flyby will help solve the mystery of whether the plume is composed of column-like, individual jets, or sinuous, icy curtain eruptions — or a combination of both. The answer would make clearer how material is getting to the surface from the ocean below.
7. Researchers are not sure how much icy material the plumes are actually spraying into space. The amount of activity has major implications for how long Enceladus might have been active.
Linked below, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory definitive guide to Cassini.
Ponder the exquisite magnificence of Cassini’s accomplishments.